Saved by the Clock: 1901

floral clock with swags 1914
1901 funeral flowers in the form of a clock. The hands point to the time of death.

CLOCK PREVENTED A BURIAL ALIVE

Girl Was Apparently Dead, but Timepiece Aroused Doubt.

IT WOULD NOT STOP

Sister Refused to Permit Burial While the Clock Ticked.

Supposed Corpse Was in a Trance and Awoke on the Fifth Day of Her Sleep.

“I am not superstitious,” said the landlady, “but there was something happened at my house about two years ago that made my flesh creep for a while, in spit of my skepticism.

“Among my boarders at that time were a widow named Mrs. Dodson, her sister, Miss Ashby, and a young man whose name was Mr. Duby. Mr. Duby was a dealer in curios. He had in his collection a number of clocks and watches, and on Miss Ashby’s birthday he made her a present of a eight-day clock. This time piece was very fine. It was about two feet high, was made of scented woods inlaid with gold, and the face, with the exception of the slits for the pendulum and the keyholes, appeared to be hermetically sealed.

“Shortly after presenting this gift to Miss Ashby Mr. Dunby left for a trip in Mexico. About 11 o’clock on the Monday after his departure I was getting ready for bed, when Mrs. Dodson tapped on the door and called to me softly through the keyhole.

“’O, Mrs. Clark,’ she said, ‘won’t you come upstairs a moment, please? Alice has been taken ill very suddenly, and I don’t know what to do for her.’

“I threw on my clothes and hurried up to Miss Ashby’s room, but, quick as I had been, it was plain that she was breathing her last. I dispatched my husband posthaste for the doctor around the corner, but before he returned the girl was gone. Mrs. Dodson and another boarder and myself were alone with her when the end came, and the minute we were assured that all was over Mrs. Dodson looked up at the clock on the mantel and said:

“’Ten minutes past eleven. I must stop the clock.’

Could Not Stop the Clock.

“She walked over and opened the painted glass door and put her hand on the pendulum, but the minute she let go it commenced ticking as loudly and regularly as before. Mrs. Dodson looked round at us in surprise.

“’Why, how strange!’ she cried. ‘It won’t stop.’

“She caught the pendulum again. Even as she held it a faint whirring noise was heard inside the clock, as if it rebelled against this restriction of movement, and no sooner was the pendulum released than it went on with its monotonous vibrations. By the time my husband came with the doctor, Mrs. Dodson had worked herself up into a fever of grief and superstitious fear.

“’It won’t stop,’ she said over and over again.

“My husband tried to comfort her. ‘If you want a clock stopped at the hour of death,’ he said, ‘we will have to get another.

“But Mrs. Dodson would not listen to that suggestion. “I must stop this one,’ she said, ‘or none at all. It has been the custom in our family for generations to stop the clock in the death chamber the minute one of us dies, and Alice would never forgive me if I should fail to do the same thing for her.’

“Seeing that her distress was genuine, my husband took the clock downstairs, and began to tinker with it himself. He turned it sideways and upside down—did everything to it, in fact, except to break it into smithereens—but, no matter how he treated it, it kept on running.

“Mrs. Dodson wept unrestrainedly. ‘It is very strange,’ she said. ‘This is the first clock I ever saw that wouldn’t stop when you wanted it to. Most of them take spells and refuse to run, but this one won’t stop running. The phenomenon is something more than mere chance. It is meant as a warning, and I am going to heed it. I am not going to bury Alice till the clock stops.’

Averted a Premature Burial.

“In vain did we argue with her. Doctors and undertakers pronounced Miss Ashby dead, but, although her body was robed for burial, Mrs. Dodson would not consent to embalming or sepulture. For four days the girl lay in her room upstairs, watched constantly by Mrs. Dodson or a trained nurse, and for four days that clock kept up its everlasting tick-tock. On the morning of the fifth day after Miss Ashby’s death Mrs. Dodson looked out as I was passing through the second floor hall and called to me excitedly.

“’I think Alice is coming to,’ she said. ‘Send for the doctor.’

“I was ready to drop with nervousness, but I managed to gather strength enough to summon the doctor, and then we set to work on the girl. It sounds impossible, but she really did revive, and, although very weak and naturally slow of recovery, she finally regained perfect health. For a long time that clock was an object of superstitious veneration, even to the strongest-minded person about the house, and not till Mr. Duby came home from Mexico did our faith in the supernatural give way to practical common sense.

“’That clock,’ said Mr. Duby, ‘Is the product of my own inventiveness. I tinkered away on it for months and finally got the works in such condition that nothing short of absolute destruction could prevent its going for eight days after it was once wound. I used to think I was fooling way my time when I pottered around with those old springs for hours at a stretch, but it proved to be the best work of my life. If it hadn’t been for that clock—’

“And we all shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the clock. Oh, no; there was really nothing unearthly about the affair, but since then I have been a good deal more charitable with persons who are naturally superstitious than I was before.”

The Inter Ocean [Chicago IL] 5 May 1901: p. 33

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It was a wide-spread custom to stop the clocks in a house at the time of death, perhaps symbolising that time was over for the deceased. One stopped the clock to avert bad luck or perhaps to ward off another death in the house. A 1909 compendium of “popular superstitions” recorded: “When anyone has died in a home, the clock must be stopped at once, and all the pictures turned toward the wall, or more of the family will die soon.”

There were various, and sometimes conflicting, beliefs about clocks and death. A sampling:

If a clock, long motionless, suddenly begins to tick or strike, it is a sign of approaching death or misfortune.

Van Smith died Saturday night of pneumonia and typhoid fever. He was a noble youth, just budding into manhood. In the room in which he was sick is an old family clock that has not run for a great many years. Several years ago while old uncle Johnnie Smith, the grandfather of the deceased, was lying sick in the same room, a few hours before his death the clock struck several times. A few years afterward Mr. Wm. Smith, father of the deceased, died in the room, and a short while before his death the clock again struck. On Friday night it struck again and Van died on Saturday night following. It was not running, had not been wound up, and was not touched by any one. This is indeed wonderful, but it is true, and can be verified by a score of witnesses.  The Pulaski [TN] Citizen 12 February 1880: p. 3

And

A DEATH CLOCK.

We have recently been informed of a truly wonderful clock, which is said to belong to a family in Newport. The clock is of simple construction, and belongs to the family of Mr. L—y; but all the efforts of clockmakers have not been able to make it keep time—consequently, it has been permitted to rest in silence. A few hours before the death of Mr. L—y’s sister, some short time since, the clock suddenly struck one, after a silence of many months. It thus continued to maintain its silence until another member of the family was prostrated with a fatal malady, when it again struck one, and on the following day the child was buried. A year elapsed, when a second child sickened and died. The clock was punctual in sounding one a few hours previous to its death. A third child, a little boy fifteen months old, was afflicted with scrofula, which baffled the skill of his physician, and died. The clock gave the usual warning, and struck one. It has never failed in sounding a death knell when any of the family in whose possession it now is were about to die. “There are stranger things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”—Cincinnati paper. Ballou Dollar Monthly Magazine Vol. 16, 1862: p. 414

Clocks were also said to stop or “die” at the same moment as their owner, in the manner of the old song “My Grandfather’s Clock,”  which contains the refrain: “But it stopped short, never to go again/ When the old man died”] Perhaps this is why Miss Ashby’s clock stubbornly refused to be stopped.

They have a genuine grandfather’s clock in Maryland, at the residence of the late Thos. M. Clavert, in Cecil county. The clock had been running for twenty-one years without repairs. When Mr. Calvert died, the folks looked at the clock to note the moment of his death. The clock had stopped, and they can’t make it run again. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 31 January 1880:p. 2

REMARKABLE CLOCK OWNED IN OMAHA

Stopped Short at Moment of Death of Two Members of the Family.

Omaha, Apri. 2. Doctor John F. Hertzman, a physician who has lived in this city for twenty-five years and has held several minor public offices, died this morning at 5:20 o’clock after an extended illness.

Watchers beside his bedside declare that, at the moment he was declared dead by the attending physician, the clock in the bed chamber ceased to tick. The fact has become known and many curious neighbors have called to see the phenomenon. The clock has been permitted to stand at 5:20.

The curious incident is further emphasized by the fact that three years  ago the same clock also stopped at the exact moment of the daughter’s death.

Another curious fact in connection with Doctor Hertzman’s death is told. His age, according to Omaha time, was 48 years, 6 hours and five minutes.

As Doctor Hertzman was born in France, it is figured by the relatives that he died almost at the moment, if not at the exact moment, of the close of his forty-seventh year, when the difference in time between the two points is considered. Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 2 April 1902: p. 8

To be Relentlessly Informative, there has been a lot of loose talk about the term “saved by the bell,” as a reference to bells rigged to ring when a prematurely buried person revived. While such devices did exist, they did not inspire the idiom. The phrase had its origins in the boxing ring.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

The Dead-Hole in the Cellar: A Visit to a Dissection Room: 1887

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have noticed a fondness for “slice of life” stories and interviews with practitioners of specialized professions like freak-makers. Today’s post offers a “slice-of-death” (in a literal sense) visit to the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. We’ve heard before about the notorious William “Old Cunny” Cunningham, the star body-snatcher of that establishment, who is mentioned several paragraphs in as presiding over the college museum.

DEATH AND LIFE

The Scenes in a Medical College.

A Visit to the Dread Dissecting-Room by a Reporter.

How the Young Doctors Carry on the Necessary Work

A Sickening Odor Pervades the Place Where Science Operates

The Subjects Now on the Slabs and the Dead-Hole in the Cellar.

Skeleton of “Cunny,” the Grave-Robber, and Other Weird Features of the Place.

Death makes cadavers for dissection. The cadavers help to educate doctors. People must die. We must have doctors.

This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it. There is a mystery, a horrid fascination about the place, which ever thrills and at the same time repels mankind. Ever since medical science came to bless and protect the human race the doctor’s knife has been busy upon the dead to better understand how to save the living.

Dead men tell no tales.

The fate of being hacked to pieces grates upon the sensibilities of those in this world.

The dead can not feel.

If they could, the keen knife of the ambitious sawbones would be stayed in its course through the muscles and flesh and vitals of the helpless victims upon the stone slabs.

Soon another corps of young physicians will be turned loose from the medical colleges in this city.

The dissection-room work is nearly over. Since the 15th of October the students of the Ohio College, on Sixth street, have improved their time by becoming acquainted with the human anatomy. Every night by the glare of the jets they have worked diligently upon the inanimate forms of some poor creatures who had no friends to bury them.

Subjects have been very scarce this year. It has been found necessary by Dr. Cilley, demonstrator of anatomy, to place ten students on one “stiff,” instead of five, as formerly. The boys have kicked considerably against being so crowded, but to no avail.

Body-snatching has become dangerous. The risk of being shot or lynched is not relished by ghouls. The law is also very severe against grave-robbing because all paupers who die in public institution whose friends do not claim them are turned over to the doctors.

The subjects are handled by the Anatomical Association.

This is a Board composed of physicians who distribute them among the various colleges according to the number of students.

The Ohio gets the most, but that college has been compelled to stint its students in cadavers to practice on.

A dead body is worth $25.

That is the market price paid for stiffs at the medical college.

The villains Ingalls and Johnson, who murdered the Taylor family, sold their three victims for $35. [Beverly Taylor, an elderly, retired body-snatcher, his wife, Elizabeth, and granddaughter Eliza Jane Lambert were murdered in 1884 and their bodies sold to the Ohio Medical College.]

Now the doctors ask questions when any one wants to sell a corpse. Since that horrible atrocity the venders of dead people are rarer and more wary. The professional body-snatchers have moved away from Cincinnati.

An Enquirer reporter was permitted to visit the Ohio Medical College a few days ago.

He saw many horrible sights, but they are necessary to science.

The students were at the time of the call listening to a lecture and the reporter pursued his tour of inspection without observation or hindrance.

The college is not an attractive place.

It is dingy, dusty, and a horrid smell of penetrating force permeates the interior.

It needs a cleaning.

The museum, which contains a valuable collection of specimens of diseased humanity, and innumerable jars of preserved monstrosities, exhales a musty odor which would try the stoutest stomach. The dust is two inches thick on the floors, windows, glass-cases and grinning skeletons.

The bones of Old Cunny, the notorious body-snatcher, hang from the railing of the balcony. His skeleton is the most conspicuous object in the museum.

The old plug-hat adorns the skull.

In his mouth, between the teeth, is the pipe he smoked before he died. Cunningham was a great character. He was in his day the most extensive grave-robber in the country. While he was janitor of the Ohio College there was never a short supply of stiffs. The faculty of the institution could always depend on “Cunny” to find the most desirable subjects, for he never had any compunctions of conscience about the grave he despoiled. Before he died the body-snatcher ordered that his body be dissected. As a mark of respect to his memory for the service he had rendered, his bones were strung on wires and hung up in the museum

Stairways on either side of the College lead to that most loathsome of all places in the average man’s estimation—the dissecting room.

The reporter entered from the west door. The room is always kept locked and the janitor had the key.

Before the threshold was reached a most noisome smell struck the olfactories of the newspaper man.

Who can describe that odor?

It is infinitely more nauseating than a charnel-house. A slaughter-house is attar of roses compared with it. The desiccating company’s building at Delhi is as sweet clover or new-mown hay after catching a whiff of the aroma in the dissecting-room.

But there is no way to prevent it.

The young doctors soon become accustomed to the stink and pursue their work on the decaying human flesh with the utmost nonchalance.

Two of them were busily occupied when the reporter stuck his nose, which he held by his hand, in the open doorway.

They were seated on stools under the glare of a gas jet which cast a lurid light on the ghastly cadaver, already mutilated beyond recognition by the skillful knives of the soon-to-be physicians. The students were on either side of the subject and looked up for a moment from their occupation to say, “how de do.” The strong light at the table made an intuitive contrast unpleasant with the gloomy aspect of the dingy room. It was not yet dark outside, but the dirt-stained windows would not admit a ray of sunlight. The ambitious and energetic students continued to examine the muscles and veins exposed by their dexterous wielding of the sharp steel.

“Pretty good subject, eh?”

“Very fair.”

The corpse, which was that of a middle-aged man, had been cut out of all shape. In fleshly places the bones protruded from the flesh.

“Nearly through with him?”

“Yes.”

Of course the votaries of science can’t stop their researches on account of sentiment for their purpose is to study the dead that the living may be preserved from untimely graves.

As the dissecting course is nearly over there is a dearth of stiffs in the Ohio College. The tables on which it is customary to lay the bodies have been piled up, and only seven of them are occupied. There is a sickening amount of debris scattered about the rooms. Bones, ribs, portions of legs, arms and headless trunks greet the visitor at every turn.

A colored boy, apparently about eighteen years old, lay stretched on his stomach across one of the slabs.

He is a fresh subject.

His arms and feet hung over the end and two or three incisions were all the marks visible upon his person.

“Rather too fat for a first-class stiff,” remarked the janitor. “The boys want lean people. Consumptives are the best. Very corpulent dead men or women are not received when we can get any other kind.”

“How many subjects have you had this winter?”

“Only ten, I think. We should have had forty to give all the students a chance to dissect the various parts. You see, when five men work on the same stiff one can dissect the arm, the second another arm, the third the head, and the other two a leg each. The boys, however, have done the best they could on the material offered. Here’s where they draw them up.”

The man walked over to a sort of elevator, where a chute extends clear to the pavement. By means of a pulley, the bodies are hauled into the dissecting-room. It was through this hole that the body of Scott Harrison was lifted to the repulsive place where it was found by his son.

Those days of horror are passed.

The college authorities will never take such chances again.

If the corpse of a prominent citizen gets within range of the knife and saw it will not be their fault.

Near this chute, connected with which are such terrible associations, was the body of a woman.

She was wrapped in a sort of bunting, but the hands and arms were exposed. It was a shapely arm, and her hands were soft and pretty.

Perhaps she was somebody’s sweetheart or wife. She could not have been more than thirty years of age. The little hand had become shriveled since death, which had occurred about one month ago.

The janitor knew nothing of her history. He believed she had come from the Hospital. If her friends had claimed the remains she would have received a decent burial.

It was impossible to tell the sex or age of any of the other subjects.

They were beyond all semblance of shape.

On a table in the east room was a pile of ribs which still held together.

Was it a man or woman?

No inexperienced, casual caller could tell what it as. The janitor said it once was part of a woman, but the doctors had completed their dissection, and before  school closed the ribs would be thrown into boiling water and the result would be a mass of bleached bones, which, with the other bones would be placed together and a skeleton would adorn some anatomical museum or a doctor’s office.

“Do you pickle bodies here in summer,” was asked of the janitor.

“Sometime; but it isn’t pleasant because we can’t keep the stiffs from smelling bad.”

The two young doctors were still examining the muscles of their subject when the reporter left the scene. The horrible odor seemed to follow them down stairs into the street. It was a welcome change…from the silence of the dead-room to the active, busy hum of life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13

“This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it.” What a touching opening sentence–like a well-loved bedtime story!  Interviews with body-snatchers were, briefly, a popular feature of many nineteenth-century newspapers. No morbid detail was spared, although the article above is unusually emphatic about the smell. It is also a surprisingly less fluent piece than is normally  found in the pages of the Enquirer. One-sentence paragraphs are not typical of 1880s journalism.

In these interviews, the Resurrectionists often reiterated the idea that what they did was done in the name of Science and that they preferred to snatch the bodies of the poor and friendless. “Friendless” was the key word, for even the poor could cause a scandal or a riot by demanding their loved ones’ bodies. Janitors were frequently a reporter’s guide to the chambers of horrors. They knew the institutional workings inside and out and since they occasionally supplemented their income by collecting the odd cadaver, they could speak to the acquisitions side of the profession. As a completely random aside, medical schools today have the same aversion to overweight subjects.

Other interviews with body-snatchers? And I would kill for a photo of “Old Cunny’s” skeleton in the museum. No one I spoke to at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine knows what became of that gentleman’s earthly remains.

Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Widowed: A Study from Life: 1909

North Carolina Digital Collections

Widowed:

(A STUDY FROM LIFE.)

“Ere y’are, Mum. Shoreditch, Liverpool-street, Banks.”

The yellow bus crossed Cambridgeheath-road, and pulled up with a jerk in front of the big public-house at the corner. A little group stood on the pavement waiting. The widow was in the middle of it. ‘Enery and Hallice stood grasping the glossy new crape of her dress with one hand. In the other they carried a sugary mass, as they took occasional bites and sucks. Around were three or four sympathising friends whose faces were as red as the widow’s, and who formed the chorus.

They formed quite a party on the top of the bus after they had climbed up the narrow stairway—a process which took so long that the driver delivered two or three vicious slashes on the near side windows, and desired to know whether they thought he was driving Black Maria.

“For shime, young man,” said one of the chorus, “and her so full of trouble. Dessay your old bit o’ crackling wouldn’t be sorry if she was in the same boat.”

The driver grunted something that was inaudible, and the widow pulled out a cotton handkerchief with a black border about two inches deep all round it. But peace was restored when another of the chorus produced a flat bottle, the contents of which caused the driver to gasp as he tilted upwards. And the bus rumbled along City-wards over the cobbles of Bethnal Green-road.

The conductor came up with tickets. He, too, was introduced to the flat bottle, which brought to his face an expression of sympathy worthy of the occasion. ‘Enry took the tickets when they had been punched, and put them in his jacket pocket, after a little difference of opinion with Halice as to their ownership, which was brought to a close by a slap and a shake given impartially to each by the widow, coupled with an inquiry as to whether they; desired to lose their pore mother as well as their father.

“What you’ve got to do is to bear up, and take a little drop of something,” said one of the chorus.

The widow agreed. “Well, they can’t never say as I didn’t put pore ‘Enry away respectably,” she remarked. “The undertaker said he was robbing his wife and kids when he did it for twelve pun fifteen.” “

“And brought out his new ‘erse,” said one of the chorus. “Some them wreafs cost a tidy bit,” she went on, pensively.

The widow threw out a reflection on the character of the boiled leg of pork which had formed part of the funeral baked meats, but the chorus all rushed in to its defence.

“I never eat a better,” said one.

“Well, pore ‘Enry would never have off eating it when we had one a sundays,” said the widow. “Give ‘im that and a bit o’ pease pudden, and he always used to say as he wouldn’t say thenk yer to dine with the King.”

“He seemed a nice young feller, that insurance man,” ventured one of the chorus, who desired to lead up to a discussion as to the amount of the insurance money.

“Well, I oughter a had £150,” said the widow, “but the foreman came round and said, ‘Take £l4, and never mind no lawyers.’”

 A glance of intelligence passed over the faces of the chorus, who began to inveigh against the greed of them insurance companies. Then one ventured a remark on the fact that you could do things as they was right to be done on a figger like that.

By this time the bus was threading the traffic across Great Eastern-street, and one of the chorus, who was more of a thought reader in the face than the others, opined that the only thing to do was to bear up.

“‘Ave a few friends in now and then,” she said; “don’t sit alone and mope.”

She was gallantly backed up by the other members of the chorus, and she proceeded to remark on the noise of this part of London, which always does make your head ache.

The chorus agreed. Someone suggested a little drop and rum and peppermint was one of the finest things for a headache caused by street noises. Another remembered that she knew a barmaid at the Cock and Magpie, just out of Norton Folgate, and she hadn’t seen her for a month o’ Sundays.

The bus stopped and the widow got up and made ready to descend. She was reminded that they wasn’t near the bank yet.

“I must have a little something,” was the reply, “or else I shall drop.”

There were murmurs of sympathy, and the whole party descended opposite the turning which led to the Cock and Magpie.

“Pore dear, you must bear up,” were the last words we heard as the conductor rang the bell.

“Be a bit of mopping before the old man’s money is blewed,” he remarked pensively.

Timaru [NZ] Herald, 27 November 1909: p. 1

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead and on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Pinched Ashes

The Urn

A report of a vile, “ashes for cash” scheme sent me to my files on early cremation to look for vintage stories of  purloined cremains.  It was surprising that, while corpses were often held for ransom or replevin, similar stories about ransom demands for ashes were extremely rare. Perhaps this was because fewer Victorians were cremated, yet there were plenty of stories of stolen ashes.  Let’s fire up the retort and look at some of these cases of ashen bodysnatching. There is quite a variety in motives and mysteries.

In most of the ash-theft cases, it is obvious there was a more mercenary motive.

HIS ASHES STOLEN.

St. Louis Girl Carried Reminder of Dead Sweetheart in Ring.

St. Louis, Dec. 15. Miss Cora Evelyn asked the police to locate a robber who stole from her $250 worth of jewelry, including an unusual ring. This ring contained the ashes of her former sweetheart, according to her statement. He was Charles Patterson who died in Binghamton, N.Y., about a year ago.

After his body had been cremated, Miss Evelyn says she procured a small quantity of his ashes, which she had placed in the setting of the ring, behind a transparent film. Her reason for this, she said, was to have near her always, some forcible reminder of her dead sweetheart. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 15 December 1910: p. 9

Today, of course, you can purchase pretty glass lockets in which to keep a pinch of the loved one’s cremains ever near, but in 1910, the ring  was freakishly unusual. In the 19th century the “correct” mourning accessory would have contained the hair, rather than the ashes, of the beloved.

Thefts of bronze urns and grave markers for scrap-metal sale are commonplace even today. One wonders if that was the motive here.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

The police of Newark, N.J., were asked yesterday to investigate the theft of a bronze urn containing the ashes of Henry Rundel Center. The urn bore the name of Center and the date of his death, November 19, 1909. Mrs. Catherine Center, widow of Henry Rundel Center, occupied an apartment at 176 Third street. Recently she went to Washington, D.C., and left the apartment in charge of a friend. The friend discovered several articles were missing, among them the urn. A sneak thief robbed the apartment. Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph 29 March 1918: p. 24

Other stories are simply a comedy of errors:

HUSBAND’S ASHES LOST.

Comedy of mixed bags.

An American widow who is so devoted to the memory of her late husband that she always carries his ashes with her was revealed by a curious mistake at the Pittsburgh station of the Pennsylvania line.

Mrs Mary White, of Chicago, who had been spending a holiday with friends at Pittsburgh, left her portmanteau at the station cloakroom while she was saying good-bye. At the same time a mechanic named James Robinson, who was going to seek employment at New York, left a similar valise containing his tools at the same station. Robinson was the first to call for his bag, accepted the one handed to him, and started for his 21 hours’ journey to New York.

Here his quest for work was successful. “But I can’t begin,” said Robinson; “they’ve given me the wrong valise at Pittsburgh and my tools are left behind.” An examination of his luggage disclosed the fact that the valise he had brought contained some woman’s wearing apparel and a sealed copper urn, to which was attached a coffin plate engraved, “George Shires White, died 1910.” There was also a Civil War medal which had belonged to Mr White. At the same time the stationmaster Chicago was telegraphing throughout the Pennsylvania line: “Wanted, a lady’s valise containing memorial tagged with the name of White; lady very anxious.”

The bags were exchanged as speedily as possible, and Mrs White explained to the Pennsylvania officials that she was never able to bring herself to inter her husband’s ashes after his cremation. She kept them with her, and it always seemed as if he himself were still her companion. Mataura Ensign, 8 August 1911: p. 5

In this story, the ashes were removed by police-impersonators probably under the guise of public health concerns. If they just wanted her trunk, how did they know there were ashes in it—did the recently widowed Mrs. Rankin mention it to the desk clerk?

DEAD HUSBAND’S ASHES STOLEN FROM WIDOW

Trunk Stolen From Hotel Room Contained Remains of Man

Cincinnati, Ohio, July 29. The disappearance of a trunk from her room in the Bremen Hotel, Twelfth and Bremen streets, containing the ashes of her husband, John Rankin, 47 years old, who died June 25, was reported to police late yesterday by Mrs. Bertha Rankin.

She told detectives she was informed police had ordered the trunk to be removed. No such order was issued through the Police Department, she was told. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 30 July 1916: p. 7

Sometimes the thieves, spooked by what they’d done, abandoned their loot.

ASHES OF HUMAN BODY STOLEN FROM DENVER OFFICE, UNOPENED URN IS LEFT AT BAKERY SHOP

Human ashes stolen Monday night from the offices of the Denver Crematory association, 100 First National Bank building, and abandoned by the thieves in a bakery at 1955 Curtis street, were returned to the crematory by the police Thursday.

As a result of conflicting instructions from relatives of the dead man—Jesse J. Haller of Mancos, Colo.—the disappearance of the ashes was not known to officials of the crematory association until the urn containing the ashes was returned to the crematory. At the downtown office of the association it was thought the ashes had been scattered in Riverside cemetery, in accordance with instructions given after Haller died here. Operator Rice of the crematory at Riverside thought the ashes had been sent to Mancos in accordance with instructions given to him by a brother last Sunday.

“It is the most mysterious happening I ever heard of,” declared President W.D. Pierce of the crematory, Thursday. “When we received Mr. Haller’s body, we were instructed to cremate it and scatter the ashes.

BODY CREMATED WEEK AGO

“The body was cremated March 24 and the ashes were locked in a steel vault at the cemetery. On Sunday, a brother appeared at the crematory and instructed Mr. Rice to ship the ashes back to Mancos. Mr. Rice sealed the ashes in an urn and brought them in to our office Monday night. The office force was gone when he arrived, and he placed the urn in a roll-top desk, locking the desk.

“The next morning we noticed that the desk would not lock, but [The rest of the story doesn’t appear or is illegible.] Denver [CO] Post 30 March 1922: p. 1

Here’s the rest of the story:

Thieves Steal Man’s Ashes, But Police Recover Them.

After having passed thru a peculiar chain of circumstances, including interment in a steel vault in the Riverside cemetery, theft from the office of the Denver Crematory association offices, abandonment in a Denver bakery and finally being turned over to the police, the ashes of J.J. Haller of Mancos, Colo., whose body was cremated on March 24, are to be shipped today to Mancos, where they will be laid in what is intended as a final resting place.

The almost unprecedented theft of human ashes was discovered yesterday when an urn containing them was returned to the Crematory by the police. The theft, which evidently occurred on Monday night, had not been noticed because of conflicting instructions from the relatives of the dead man.

Stolen from Desk.

The body was cremated on March 24, and the ashes locked in a steel vault in Riverside cemetery. Instructions from one source directed that the ashes be scattered in Riverside cemetery but a brother of the dead man, living in Mancos, gave instructions that the ashes be sent to him.

Joseph C. Rice, assistant superintendent received the latter instructions on last Sunday, so he took the urn containing the ashes to the downtown office of his company. He placed the urn in a rolltop desk and locked it. On Monday morning the urn was gone, but because of the misunderstanding that existed the possibilities of a theft was not considered.

Abandoned in Bakery.

Upon the return of the urn to the crematory association yesterday by the police, it was explained that the urn had been left in a bakery shop by two boys who said they would return for it. When they did not come to claim it the baker took it to the police station where it was opened and its contents discovered. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the boys left the urn with the baker without knowing what it contained or whether they opened it and learned of its contents before abandoning it.

A telegram asking reasons for the delay in the shipment of the ashes was received from Mancos yesterday, so the ashes will be shipped today.

Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 31 March 1922: p. 3

Recently I read of a donation to a thrift store of a bottle labeled “Dad’s Ashes.” Perhaps the bereaved are simply absent-minded, leaving “Dad” or, as in the following story “a carpenter” in the wrong place.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

Urn Taken From Railway Carriage Is Hastily Abandoned in Tram Car by Surprised Crook.

Berlin, April. 30. Strange objects have been left behind in public conveyances, but it is not often that deliberation or forgetfulness abandons anything more incongruous to workaday traffic than the urn containing the ashes of a carpenter, which was found yesterday by a conductor in the corner of a Cologne tram car.

The incident proved to be even odder on investigation than it had appeared at first sight, for it turned out that the vessel had been stolen from a railway carriage, evidently under the impression that it contained something to eat or drink, while its legal owner was conveying it home from the Maience Crematorium. On discovering that he had embarrassed himself with the incinerated remains of a carpenter, the thief had hastened to get rid of them by leaving his burden in the train. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 15 May 1910: p. 4

Did the thief think the urn was a thermos?

Then there are the truly mysterious thefts, hinting of nameless uses for the ashes.

ASHES STOLEN FROM A GRAVE

The Discovery of the Outrage Causes a Sensation in Raleigh

Raleigh, N.C., May 26. A distinct sensation has developed here among a wide circle of friends of the family at the discovery that the grave of Miss Mattie Oettinger, in Oakwood Cemetery, has been opened and her ashes stolen away. The ghouls had cut off the turf and dug down into the inner cell, where the urn was placed. On replacing the roof a mistake was made, so that the earth sifted through, causing a depression of the grave. This and the withered turf led to the discovery.

Miss Oettinger was a daughter of the late Isaac Oettinger, and died in New York about more than a year ago. The remains were cremated and brought here for burial in the family lot. Every effort thus far has failed to reveal any clue to those guilty of the crime. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 27 May 1906: p. 5

Towards the end of my search, at last I located a single instance of “ashes for cash.”

KIDNAP ANCESTRAL ASHES FOR RANSOM

Berne, Switzerland, Oct. 1. Thieves broke into a crematory situated in Bienne near Berne, a few nights ago, and stole a few sepulchral urns containing the ashes of members of wealthy families.

Prominent families of Berne and Zurich are receiving letters offering to return the urns for a consideration varying between 2,000 and 4,000 francs, according to the financial standing of the owners.

The police hope to lay a trap for the ghouls.

Wyoming State Tribune [Cheyenne WY] 1 October 1902: p. 4

And, finally, the lust for murderabilia formed the motive for the theft of a murderer’s cremains.

MURDERER’S ASHES STOLEN BY MORGUE SIGHT-SEERS

Visitors to Allegheny County’s Dead House Carry Away Dust Mementoes

Pittsburgh, Pa., Jan. 3. The ashes of Steve Rusic, whose body was first to be cremated in the county crematory, after he had been hanged in the county jail yard for murder, have slowly disappeared from an urn in the morgue building, where they have been on view since February, 1911. Curiosity-seekers are accused of carrying away the ashes until about half a handful remains.

The theft was discovered today when Deputy Coroner John Moschell noticed that the urns, containing the ashes of persons cremated, had been disturbed. Rusic was hanged for the murder of Salvarro [Mary] Domboy at her home in McKees Rocks January 15, 1910. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 4 January 1917: p. 2

Mrs Garvarro Domboy was shot by Rusic as she lay in bed with her husband and baby. Some papers reported that this was because she refused to accept the man’s attentions; others because she had ended their love affair. Did the curiosity-seekers think they could use the ashes for some kind of charm or did they merely want a grim and sooty souvenir?

Any other ashes-for-cash stories? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.